Congressional Black Caucus Chair Mel Watt raised a howl recently when House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called for Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson's political scalp.
Pelosi publicly implored the embattled, scandal-plagued Black House member to step down from his post on the House Ways and Means Committee. Predictably, Watt charged racism and lambasted Pelosi's move as a slap at Black voters.
But the racial saber-rattling won't — and shouldn't — work. Though Jefferson denies wrongdoing, and has not been indicted, he was allegedly caught on videotape accepting $100,000 in bribe money from an FBI agent for a high-tech business deal in Africa — and stuffing $90,000 of it into his freezer. He also commandeered government rescue vehicles during the Hurricane Katrina horror to haul personal possessions from his New Orleans home while those vehicles could have aided residences that pled for rescue.
An aide and a former business associate involved in the same shady deals for which Jefferson is under scrutiny have pled guilty to bribery charges. Even if Jefferson dodges a legal bullet and escapes prosecution, the surveillance tape, FBI testimony and his refusal to turn over records to government investigators have raised glaring red ethics flags.
Pelosi didn't axe Jefferson because he's Black — she axed Jefferson because he's damaged goods. Earlier, Pelosi demanded that Alan Mollohan, a White West Virginia Democrat, leave the ethics committee when questions arose about his dealings. Jefferson and Mollohan are the latest in the lengthening list of House members that have been indicted, prosecuted, jailed or faced ethics probes and investigations.
Jefferson is a centrist, play-by-the-party-rules Democratic stalwart. Like many other House members, he got his plum post on the Ways and Means Committee based in part on seniority and in greater part because he's a consummate party loyalist.
The willingness of House Republicans to routinely refuse to impose sanctions on their membership for outrageous ethics violations has made Congress a laughingstock with much of the public.
Pelosi's push to strip Jefferson of his seat won't do much to change that. But it does give Democrats a political and moral hammer with which to pound Republicans for the culture of corruption and rot in Congress. A too spirited defense of Jefferson by the Black Caucus will soften that blow and reinforce the deep public belief that the corrupt Washington culture is alive and well. And worse, that they're willing to play the race card to ensure it stays alive.
Watt, however, did make a valid point — the Democrats have shamefully taken the Black vote for granted. That neglect has cost them mightily. It gave Bush enough ammunition to persuade some Blacks in the last presidential election that, incredibly, the GOP was more friendly to Blacks than the Democrats.
The mild bump in Black support for Bush in Ohio and Florida tipped the White House to him. It also made credible the high-profile gubernatorial and Senate candidacies of Blacks such as Michael Steele in Maryland, Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania, Kent Blackwell in Ohio and Keith Butler in Michigan. A win by one or more of them this fall could hurt the Democrats again in 2008.
Pelosi is sensitive to that peril. She held a conference-call press conference with Black reporters to talk about Jefferson. She reassured us that he was not being targeted because of his race and that House Democrats are sensitive to Black voters.
Time will tell how true that is, but one thing is for sure: The spat over Jefferson is not about race. It's about Jefferson.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for www.blacknews.com.